Humans have lived in tropical forests for millennia. The archaeological records for the Niah cave, Sarawak, go back about 40,000 years, and for Amazonia about 5,000-11,000 years (Roosevelt et al. 1996; Whitmore 1998). In Africa, the occupation of the forest has been traced back at least 2,000 years (Wilkie 1988). The ancestors of the Pygmies who now live in the rain forests of the Congo basin were probably the first inhabitants of the African rain forests.
The people of the tropical rain forests of the world are very varied. They differ in their effects on the forest and on the ways in which the forest affects them. Today hunter-gatherer societies still live in all three rain forest regions, living off the wild plants they collect and animals they hunt. However, these are a vanishing minority. Many more people living in the rainforest participate in markets - local, national, or international. They fell trees, plant crops, and make a living from forest resources, thus strongly impacting the forests they dwell in. Also there are those who may not live in the forests themselves but whose lives depend on forests, through managing large forest enterprises or otherwise transforming the forests in a variety of ways. Thus people who rely on the rain forest differ greatly in their understanding of what they are using, destroying, or replacing, and in the value they place on the forest (Denslow and Padoch 1988).
Human impact on tropical forests has changed in pace and scale through time. While about a quarter of a million indigenous people survive in Amazonia today, it is estimated that when Europeans first arrived over 500 years ago, there were perhaps 6 million people living there (Carneiro 1988). Indigenous populations have decreased enormously, largely due to diseases introduced by European settlers. Deforestation and displacement also contributed to decreased populations of indigenous peoples. The Amazonian forest is now less than half the size it was when the first Europeans arrived. Today some tribes persist, carrying on slash-and-burn agriculture and using a variety of plant and animal products from the forest. They cut and burn a small area of forest, generally less than 1 ha in size. They grow crops in the soil enriched by organic matter remaining in or on the soil. After 2-4 years, when weeds invade the site and the organic matter disappears, they abandon it and start the process again.
When population densities are low, and there is no pressure to shorten fallows, slash-and-burn as practiced by these traditional societies has proved to be a long-term system. It has provided the basis for a distinctive culture that, wherever left untrampled by the outside world, continues to flourish. However, these pristine areas are being reduced and threatened with extinction. In some areas of Amazonia, such as the Upper Xingú in central Brazil, a reservation protects the indigenous peoples living there, although a certain degree of acculturation cannot be prevented (Carneiro 1988). However, in most part of Amazonia, indigenous peoples have no such protection.
The Lacandon Maya, still inhabiting forest land in the Selva Lacandona in eastern Chiapas, Mexico, are another example of an indigenous culture whose forested territory has been drastically reduced. Their forest area of about 6,000 km2 is interspersed with pasture and agricultural clearings (Nations 1988). The central feature of the Lacandon's traditional rain-forest management is a system of agroforestry that produces food crops, trees, and animals on the same plot of land simultaneously. Lacandon agroforestry combines up to 79 varieties of food and fiber crops grown in small garden plots cleared from tropical forest. Like forest farmers throughout the tropics, they create these plots by felling and burning the forest to clean the plot of insects and weeds and to create a temporarily fertile soil by transforming the nutrients of the vegetation into a fertile ash. To conservationists and government planners, the most intriguing aspect of the Lacandon farming system is that they maintain the same plot in production for up to 7 years, while most immi grant colonists have to clear new plots in the forest almost annually. Intensive tending of the plot to keep it clear of weeds is one of the major factors responsible for the long duration of their plots. When the old plots decrease their productivity, the Lacandon plant tree crops and continue to harvest the products while the system remains as a fallow plot and recovers its productive capacity.
Other forest dwellers enrich the primary forest by planting or tending useful species, to create what are sometimes called "agroforests." In southern Sumatra, the forests are enriched with Shorea javanica which is tapped for its resin (Whitmore 1998). In Borneo, forests have been enriched with another Shorea species for nut production, or with rattan (Brookfield 1993). In the "varzeas" or flooded forests of the delta of the Amazon River in the state of Para, Brazil, the Euterpe oleracea palm or "a9ai" mentioned above is managed by "caboclos", an amalgam of Indians, African slaves, and European pioneers (Montagnini and Muniz-Miret 1999).
A number of economic and social factors that are operating today in the major tropical regions of the world threaten the integrity of the rain forest and put in question the continued existence of the traditional lifestyles of forest farmers and hunter-gatherers. Changes that have occurred over the last century have already had a profound effect on traditional ways of life of most forest people. These changes may only accelerate in the near future, resulting in the possible acculturation and subsequent loss of unique human cultures, and knowledge of how to manage the forests without destroying them.
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